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January 8, 2008


Missed It: Is the Comic Book Back Issues Business In a State of Freefall or Flux?

A few articles up at the comics business news and analysis site ICv2.com indicate an uncertain future for the comic book back issues business. Basically, the rise of a number of factors ranging from on-line sales avenues and trade paperback collections has diminished the effectiveness of some store's back issues sections to the point they're considering their elimination, or have already done so. This is exacerbated by increasing rent in several locations and the desire by many establishments to make all of their physical space more active in terms of making money for them. What seems to me the through-line here is the inevitability of a greater variety of sales models by which old comics can be put into the hands of those who want them. One of the pieces mentions small shops going through a bigger house like Lone Star Comics as a way to meet local collectors' demands; I would also suggest that discount pricing as opposed to collectible pricing is one way retailers commonly get some sales churn out of that portion of their store, a strategy that wasn't quite as commonplace 20 years ago.

imageI think this potential slow transformation of the back issues market is a bigger story than it appears at first glance. Back issues were an important part of the Direct Market formulation that kept a proper comics industry afloat in the 1970s and into the '80s -- one reason one was supposed to not mind so much buying non-returnable comics because anything that didn't sell immediately could be sold as a back issue. Ironically, for as much as all those white boxes have come to symbolize collecting over reading comics, the recent growth in more comprehensive tastes by older fans with economic power has driven a lot of reader-interest purchases of old comics in the last decade: things that aren't collected, like John Stanley's Thirteen Going On Eighteen, or items which someone may desire for some element of the reading experience that doesn't survive into a re-publication form, like Jack Kirby's 1960s Marvel comic books and the way the colors sit on the page.

It's hard for me to imagine most comic shops will be best served in the long-run by ridding themselves of old comic sales altogether. As more and more traditional comics readers become more savvy about and comfortable with on-line sales, and more folks enter into comics reading being served in their new comics purchases in a dominant way by everything but comics shops, stores devoted to comics will need every unique opportunity to distinguish themselves as they can find. My hunch is that many retailers are finding themselves only partially up against a shift of reading and buying habits on an institutional level, and more on the wrong side of a system defined by several unfortunate, indicative-of-unconscious-collusion peccadilloes in terms of pricing and market assumptions that could stand to be brushed from comics' coat like so many burrs. I might be concerned if I thought comics shops could no longer sell someone a great old comic book; I don't think I care as much if they have to sell it for a $5 flat rate in a rotating display as opposed to getting $32 for it just by virtue of putting it in a box underneath a card table in a corner of their floor space.

I'm not naive enough to think that old comics buying will someday be totally reflective of actual market demands for such items or that the industry will develop an equivalent to the lower entry point of used books that so deftly serves a lot of passionate readers. I do find myself thinking that any correction that takes us closer to fair transactions and wider reading opportunities is a cause for celebration, not discouragement.

pictured is an old comic I recently bought to read from a store that had it priced to sell; this would have been priced out of my hands even ten years ago
 
posted 4:30 pm PST | Permalink
 

 
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